Making positive change: Seven high school seniors receive Sojourner Truth Social Justice Awards

  • The Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue at Pine and Park streets in Florence. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 6/2/2021 9:02:50 AM

NORTHAMPTON — For years now, activists have gathered annually in Florence under the spreading arms of the Sojourner Truth statue many of them saw get built, to raise their voices in song and award a handful of high school seniors scholarships in the great abolitionist’s name. You’d expect there’d be something missing in the Zoom version of all this, but led by Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee co-chairs Marcus Ware and Carol Rinehart, what one got was a pretty excellent show, with a lot of personality and youth of all ages, colors and creeds in full expression.

Seven graduating high school seniors from Hampshire and Hampden public schools were awarded Sojourner Truth Social Justice Scholarship Awards of $1,500 Sunday. The seniors, a diverse group, many of whom were born into activism, told of their first encounters with injustice.

Aaron Emil Richmond-Crosset of the Springfield Renaissance School has lived his entire life in Mason Square, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Springfield, one he describes as “true apartheid, where people have very little access to healthy food. We have fast food and local bodegas. Racism has created a food system that harms people of color.”

He has been a youth leader since he was 13, involved in urban gardening and teaching people how to grow food for themselves. “I will not be living in Mason Square this fall,” he said, hoping to learn all he can about urban forestry at Clark University, “but as a white man I need to speak out with whatever is in my power to end food injustice.”

Emma Norman of Easthampton High School said her awareness of Black history began with her family’s annual celebration of Kwanzaa. As an intern, she contributed to a pop-up museum on diversity with an exhibit of Black superheroes.

“A lot of people focused on the Black heroes in comics, but then they moved on to the rest of the museum. When that lightbulb flickers ever so slightly... you can make positive change.” Norman will study at Hampshire College and “its long history of championing social justice.”

Committee member Carlie Tartakov addressed the young honorees about her earliest days on the Sojourner Truth Committee.

“I met a lot of great people who, like you, were trying to stay in trouble, as John Lewis put it, good trouble,” she said.

Monica Cage of Amherst Regional High School, leader of People of Color United at the school, said, “I remember being 8 years old and (being) dragged to rallies in Springfield at 4 a.m.” A cousin had been wrongfully jailed for murder. “I went from ‘why am I out here?’ to ‘you have to be out there.’”

Cage, who braids hair at a Mason Square barbershop, is starting a school to teach others the art. “Springfield is very different from Amherst — you have to adjust,” she said.

Cage intends to devote her entire life working for social justice but worries about the toll it takes.

“I want to still have the energy. I don’t want to feel burned out,” she said.

At a Black Lives Matter event in Amherst, she felt stressed out from all the planning for the affair. “Then you’re out there and it’s just fun,” she said.

But as co-chair Carol Rinehart put it: “You hope to be able to do this always and not get burned out. But if you do, it will be a good burnout. The antidote to burnout is community, I think.”

Also receiving scholarships were Salome Moreno of Holyoke High School, Emilia Lambert-Mergendahl of Summit Academy/Amherst Regional High School and Katrina Aquilino and Maya Mintz Coccoluto of Northampton High, who said, “Conversations are the way that we’ll make legitimate change in this world.”

“So glad you were born,” Rinehart told the seniors. “It’s a hard world and it will continue to be hard, but the future’s in good hands.”

The Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee began recognizing Hampshire County high school seniors who completed social justice work that aligned with the vision of Sojourner Truth in 2006. The scholarship program was extended to include Hampden County students in 2017. The awards have grown from two $500 scholarships to seven $1,500 awards this year with a total of 43 seniors receiving the awards.


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